The Continued Decline of the Intentional Walk

I’m on record as being against intentional walks in most situations. That’s hardly some bold claim — over the last 15 years, they’re on a steady downward path as front offices and managers come to grips with the ills of extra baserunners. That’s not to say there’s never a good situation for a free pass, but those situations are few and far between.

Why pinpoint the last 15 years as the timeframe for this drop-off? In 1955, the first year where we have intentional walk totals, teams issued roughly 7.5 intentional walks per 1,000 plate appearances. In 2002, they issued 7.8 intentional walks per 1,000 PAs. Sure, there were peaks and valleys in between, but the data hardly indicated a trend. Take a look at the number of intentional walks issued per 1,000 plate appearances each year since 1955:

One note: I’ve excluded 2020 because of the universal DH, which created a meaningfully different backdrop for intentional walks — walking a decent hitter to face a pitcher is one of the best uses of the tactic.

I could end this article right there. That’s a convincing chart — the year with the least frequent intentional walks is 2021, and the year with the second-least is 2019. They’re roughly equivalent — four walks per 1,000 in 2019, 3.8 in ’21 — but even so, the writing is on the wall. Give the game 20 years, and we’ll surely see even fewer.

But this trend still understates how much managers have turned away from the tactic. I’m quoting this per-PA metric because it makes the numbers intelligible, but that’s not really how intentional walks work. Plenty of plate appearances in a given game aren’t candidates for intentional walks at all. Even the most walk-happy manager wouldn’t issue a free pass to lead off a game, or even to lead off an inning.

If we really want to know how managers are using intentional walks, we need to look at intentional walk opportunities, situations where “the book” (with apologies to Tom Tango, whose book would never recommend such nonsense) says a walk is okay. Let’s consider intentional walks not as a fraction of all plate appearances, but of those where a manager might reasonably consider issuing a free pass.

I cobbled together a few ways of looking at this data using our Splits Leaderboards, which have data going back to 2002. First, I looked at situations with high leverage and runners in scoring position. There’s a roughly similar pattern, though from a higher baseline and with less of a drop-off:

One problem: this is one of the few circumstances where intentional walks might make sense, so I’m not sure it’s a great picture of “managers getting more rational.” The same is true if we look at intentional walks in National League games with the ninth spot in the lineup due next and runners on base. Please excuse the non-zero y axis; the graph looked silly with a base at zero, and I think the message still comes across:

Like our previous subset, there’s a higher baseline — walking the eighth hitter to get to the pitcher just makes sense. Again, however, I’m not sure that this data is useful. This is a spot where intentionally walking the eighth hitter makes sense at least some of the time. Even if managers are making the “optimal” decision, they might still walk a fair number of batters in that spot.

If those cuts weren’t conclusive, though, the next one is an eye opener. There’s actually something in the game this year that gives teams an incentive to issue more intentional walks, not fewer. The new extra inning rules create situations where the game is close and there’s almost automatically an open base. Runner on third and one out? You can walk the next batter to set up a double play. You can walk them to get a platoon matchup. Heck, you could walk them and the hitter on deck to make a force at every base — though walking the bases loaded carries risks.

Take a look at intentional walks as a proportion of extra innings plate appearances over time:

That spike in 2021 isn’t managers suddenly deciding that intentional walks are cool again. It’s their response to a meaningfully different game state, one that by its very nature makes intentional walks more likely. That split looks even more shocking if we limit it to the home half of extra innings:

To get a better sense of what’s going on with intentional walks more broadly, we’ll have to remove extra innings. Otherwise, the changing game rules will cloud our analysis. Here’s the frequency of intentional walks in regulation innings from 2002-2021:

Now we’re talking. If you exclude situations that practically force managers’ hands, intentional walks have plummeted again this year. Not only are they at the lowest rate ever (again excluding 2020), they’re declining at a rapid rate. There’s nothing particularly strange about that — they should be declining, because the circumstances that would dictate an intentional walk are quite rare, more rare by far than the situations where managers call for one. Since that’s the best chart of the article, here it is in table form as well:

Intentional walks, innings 1-9
Season IBB/1000PA
2002 7.1
2003 6.5
2004 6.7
2005 6.0
2006 6.9
2007 6.5
2008 6.4
2009 5.8
2010 6.0
2011 6.0
2012 5.3
2013 4.8
2014 4.7
2015 4.7
2016 4.6
2017 4.8
2018 4.5
2019 3.7
2021 3.0

We may be headed for another step change in intentional walk frequency. In this year’s CBA negotiations, a universal DH will certainly be on the table. Pitchers are hitting .110/.150/.141 this year, which would be the worst average, second-worst OBP, and worst SLG recorded by pitchers if it holds up until season’s end.

An NL DH, along with the end of the automatic runner in extra innings, might be the final push the game needs to turn completely away from intentional walks. Managers are already avoiding them like never before, trusting the numbers and their pitchers. They’re doing so despite rules changes that create additional intentional passes. When the rules stop fighting the tide and start aiding it, we might look at these recent seasons as the midpoint of a trend, not its end.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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newsense

One other new incentive for IBB: the requirement that relievers face three batters. Previously an unfavorable matchup might trigger a pitching change rather than an IBB; the rule makes IBB the only alternative.

CJ
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CJ

A certain Yankee slugger may be getting a lot more IBB if he continues hitting like this – He benefitted from the 3 batter fule on at least once over the weekend